Maintaining qualitative research during the pandemic was the theme of this year’s BRC Qualitative Research Network symposium, where Dr Katie Whale from our Surgical Innovation theme shared some insights from social science and psychology to reflect on how video affects our communication.

The pandemic has triggered a huge boom in the use of video communication, both in our social and work lives. The use of Zoom alone increased by 67 per cent between January and mid-March 2020 as the pandemic hit – and in March 2020, Zoom software was downloaded 2.3 million times. The bottom line is that we are now using video communication at a scale we have never seen before, with most of our interaction with others now taking place through the lens of a web cam.

Video platforms have helped us stay connected with people over the last year, but how have they affected our communication? And what impact has this had on how qualitative researchers like myself do our research?

Synchrony

Humans are incredibly advanced and complex communicators. When interacting with others we all use a range of precisely timed vocalisations, gestures, and movements to communicate, and these rely on a precise set of responses from others in order for us to know that we are being understood. This is called synchrony.

If a delay is introduced, even by only a millisecond, our brains register the disruption and have to work harder to overcome it and restore synchrony. This results in an increased level of mental exertion and performance. In video communication, this means we have to work harder to be and to feel understood. Continuous disruptions to synchrony can contribute to the now well know phrase ‘zoom fatigue’.

Eye contact

Eye contact has a very important role in social communication. Another person’s gaze indicates the direction of their attention. The direction of gaze is a frequent topic of conversation in the art world and the images below show three different kinds of eye contact.

Left to right: Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, Las Meninas depicting the family of Philip 4th by Valazquez, American Gothic by Grant Wood.

In each the gaze tells a different story. The external gaze between the subject of the painting and us as the viewer conveys one story, and the internal gaze between the subjects of the painting conveys another.

Psychological studies have shown that when eye contact is directed towards us it is usually perceived as a positive social signal, a sign of liking and of communicative intent.

Feeling as if the other person you are talking to is looking at your eyes is important. This is a particular challenge in video communication. Most cameras sit at the top of our screens, meaning our own gaze appears downwards. In order to make eye contact we need to look directly at the camera, however this means we cannot focuses on the faces of the people we are communicating with.

In qualitative work this has both pros and cons. The lack of direct or mutual gaze can make it harder to build positive relationships with the other person, or to signal interest and convey emotion. However, indirect gaze can elicit greater disclosure. This is why we often find it easier to talk about difficult or emotional topics in the car or when going for a walk.

Presentation of self – ‘All the world’s a stage, and the men and women merely players’

In all communication and interaction we are engaging in presentation of self. One of the most well known pieces of thinking about presentation of self, is by the sociologist Erving Goffman (The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, 1956). Goffman presented the idea that a person is like an actor on stage and that we all present different ‘selves’ during our interactions. We also have different ‘frontstage’ and ‘backstage’ behaviours.

Face to face interviews have commonly taken place at people’s houses, meaning we get an insight into the staging of a participants’ ‘backstage’ life, as well as the self they present during the interview. In video interviewing, probably for the first time we are now also letting the participant see our own backstage lives. The background of our own cameras provides information to the interviewee which they never have had before. We may even have interruptions from other areas of our lives, our children, partners, pets. Our presentation of self is therefore much less defined, and we may switch between roles during the interview.

What next?

Video communication has served as a lifeline during the pandemic. For myself, as for many researchers, it has given me the ability to continue much of my work and connect with colleagues. However, the pace of our adaptation to this new way of working and interacting has left us with little time and headspace to reflect on the wider impact.

As we pass the anniversary of the first lockdown and take stock, my mind turns to where we go next. With many more people expressing a desire to continue working from home, are virtual reality meeting spaces and work avatars the next step? Will our geographical location cease to matter as we join meetings and collaborate from across the globe? Or will the lack of in-person contact make us cherish our office spaces and water-cooler chats like never before?